Hip hop and the Long Beach music store that brought the artform to the west coast are going down in history. In May, Long Beach officials promised to invest $80,000 towards removing, restoring and registering the “World Famous V.I.P. Records” sign as an official landmark. It’s a huge accomplishment for the store owner, who struggles –every month– to keep his lease current.
V-I-P Records owner, Kelvin Anderson sums up his troubles in one word: technology. Digital downloads is why Anderson says he’s barely making the rent on this three-thousand square-foot space.
“See, back in the day,” says Anderson, “something bootleg used to sound bootleg.”
That’s not the case anymore. Anderson says business is so tight, he’s closed a nearby storage unit and is consolidating merchandise inside his store to save money. If the new landlord raises rent at all, Anderson says he’ll have no choice.
“There’s no profit. We went a whole year in ’06 without a profit,” says Anderson. “It’s like $60 to $100-thousand dollars that’s no longer in the bank… (laughs).”
The 52-year old entrepreneur used to laugh all the way to bank back when he opened this store in 1978. That year, Thelma Houston’s disco smash, “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” topped the charts. Back then, Anderson didn’t even break a sweat sponsoring neighborhood projects, like softball teams and he has dozens of city commendations to prove it. Albums sold for about five dollars. Anderson and his family made millions moving popular vinyl. At one point, they operated 12 VIP Record stores across Los Angeles County. Five are left.
VIP Records Long Beach did something special. Kelvin Anderson, a family man, started jammin’ to an underground grove. He became a founding father of a cultural movement.
“Rap music would have never gotten its start,” says Anderson, “had it never been embraced by people like me.”
Anderson played club hits inside his store, like this 1984 single, “Egypt Egypt” by L.A. based artists, “The Egyptian Lover.” In the 1980s, rap was to teens what Elvis Presley was to Rock and Roll in the 1950s. Radio stations and major record labels hadn’t caught on yet. Anderson says he knew he could make money selling the bass-laden rhythms. To tap into those beats, he built a recording studio inside his store.
“Took my own money,” says Anders, “…and purchased equipment.“
That five-thousand dollar investment in the early 1990s turned pipe dreams into cold cash for a number of local acts. One of Anderson’s protégés was Long Beach native,Calvin Broadus Jr. Or, as he likes to be called these days: Snoop Dogg.
“This is actually where he recorded his first demo,” says Anderson. “After he recorded his first release, he came and recorded his first video on the roof of this store.”
“Who am I? What’s my name” was Snoop’s break out cut. Its video captured the VIP Records’ sign on the roof. Like a one-hit wonder, Anderson says his store instantly became famous!
“We have people who come here from Japan and Germany,” says Anderson, “…and other places.”
“Whenever people come into town to L.A, some of my VPs will come into town, the first store they wanna hit is VIP records.”
Reyna Bowman works for Warner Music Group. It’s her job to hand deliver newly-released CDs and promotional posters to her clients, including VIP Records Long Beach. To her bosses, she says, Kelvin Anderson’s ears are platinum.
“If they wanna find out what’s going on as far as sales,” says Bowman, “who’s hot right now in the streets, which artist there’s a buzz about, Kelvin Knows. And if he doesn’t know, his employees know.”
…and if Anderson loses his store?
“The implication is,” Anderson continues, “…that new acts on the street aren’t gonna have the kind of opportunity that they had before.”
Rap mogul Jerry Heller has been in the music business for more than 30-years. He co-founded Ruthless Records. For a time, that label produced the top West Coast rap acts. Heller sold nearly half his records at VIP Long Beach. If it shuts down, he says, hip-hop culture will suffer.
“You don’t have the voice of the street anymore dictating which new acts are gonna break,” says Heller. “So, that leaves it to the major companies like Universal… K-DAY, which is tragic.”
For now, Kelvin Anderson’s keeping his ear to the street for the hottest new acts.
“We’re selling now… Hobo, who lives down the street,” Anderson gloats. “Lil Bam, that just came out. It’s gonna be real, real big. He should be getting a major deal soon.”
“VIP just inspired me period,” says Lil Bam, “because if you can’t go nowhere else and get my music, you can come to my home and get my music.”
A point of pride for Anderson, who’s working with about a hundred up n’ coming rappers. He’s also focusing on merchandise. He’s branded VIP’s logo for sale on designer t-shirts and caps. Anderson says he’ willing to do whatever it takes to preserve, what he calls, a beacon to the hip-hop world.